Boston — There is an American League Central Division race waiting to be grabbed by a nasty, well-rounded team bent on shaking up a region that was supposed to have belonged to Cleveland.
The Tigers would love being that contender. But it’ll mean changing some of the past week’s behavior.
They faded for the fourth time in five games Saturday night at Fenway Park, fighting their way back from 2-0 and 3-2 holes, all before the Red Sox jumped on a pair of Tigers relievers for eight runs in the seventh and eighth innings and an 11-3 victory that thoroughly tickled most of a summer-dressed crowd of 37,162.
The Tigers were dealing Saturday with different realities and emotions.
Justin Verlander started against Chris Sale and it looked for a couple of innings as if he and Sale would do a King Kong-Godzilla reprise. But in the third, the Red Sox, who apparently think hitting foul balls is a big-league game’s objective, wrung out Verlander on a 39-pitch inning that put Boston on top, 2-0.
“Seems to be kind of a general theme this year,” Verlander said afterward in a visitor’s clubhouse that, as clubhouses tend to be following a defeat, was library-quiet. “The way they were fouling balls off tonight was killing me.
“They were spoiling really good pitches.”
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus acknowledged, along with Verlander, that Saturday evening’s foul-ball firestorm wasn’t necessarily a one-night phenomenon when Verlander’s 2017 starts are reviewed, even when the Red Sox are notorious for spinning pitch-counts.
“It’s not the first time it’s happened this season,” said Ausmus, who remembered Verlander’s previous start, a week ago against the White Sox, when Verlander had a 39-pitch inning and an early exit.
“But the foul balls and the pitch count got up real high.”
The Tigers tied things in the fifth on singles from Jose Iglesias and Ian Kinsler, which brought on Nicholas Castellanos, who tomahawked a Sale slider down the left-field line for a pair of RBIs and a 2-2 game.
The Red Sox got a go-ahead run in the fifth, Verlander’s last frame, on a walk, a fielder’s choice ground out, and Xander Bogaerts’ RBI double to left-center.
The Tigers knotted it at 3-3 in the sixth when Justin Upton doubled and scooted home on a single to left-center by Mikie Mahtook.
Verlander was excused after five innings and 108 pitches. It was up to a panel of split-decision judges to assess his evening.
On the plus side, his fastball was at standard operating speed — 94-95 mph on average, with a dose of higher-mph heaters. He had a solid quiver of secondary pitches, as Ausmus attested.
“His curveball was real good,” Ausmus said. “Particularly early.”
But he walked three batters, including .250-hitting third baseman Josh Rutledge, which coupled with all those Fenway fouls made Verlander’s evening labor-intensive.
One example there was No. 9 hitter Sandy Leon. He chewed into Verlander for a combined 19 pitches in two at-bats in the third and fourth innings. Leon’s last at-bat was a 10-pitch marvel during which Verlander never threw a single pitch that wasn’t a strike.
Verlander might also have been squeezed, at least in the Tigers’ view, during Rutledge’s at-bat in the fourth when Verlander didn’t appreciate a call by home-plate umpire Dave Rackley.
The walk to Rutledge brought on Leon and his 10-pitch marathon.
“Sometimes those calls do end up costing you,” Verlander said. “And that can be frustrating. But they’re human back there. Those guys have a tough job.
“But it very well could have cost me another inning.”
Sale had a breezier time, although he was not the shutdown beast he has been of late for the Red Sox.
Sale lasted seven innings, was slapped for nine Tigers hits, and all three Detroit runs.
The difference, largely: Sale walked not a single Tigers batter, while striking out seven.
It was still 3-3 in the seventh when Detroit’s night disintegrated.
Warwick Saupold was socked for three runs, all before Arcenio Leon arrived for a nightmarish, five-run eighth.
Ausmus’ problem, of course, is not new to a manager or to the Tigers. He has been working his go-to relievers, Shane Greene and Alex Wilson, so regularly they were due for a no-warming, no-throwing evening. And they got one.
But other than Daniel Stumpf, who pitched a solid 2/3 of an inning, and Francisco Rodriguez, who finished the sixth inning Stump began, eight runs flew home by way of Tigers relievers.
"Seven guys,” Ausmus said of his relief crew. “They all have to contribute. You can’t wear out the other guys or they’ll all be dead by the end of the season.”
The Tigers have a nearly four-months-long path ahead. Saturday night’s game was their 61st of the year. By the time their weekend get-together with the Red Sox is a wrap, following Sunday night’s 8 p.m. rematch (ESPN), the Tigers will have an even 100 games remaining.
A team three games beneath .500 has some work to do, as all supposed contenders face, if those ultimate division titles and playoff bids are to turn serious. It’s something Daniel Norris no doubt realizes. He’ll work tonight for the Tigers against Red Sox right-hander Drew Pomeranz as the Tigers try to pry at least one victory from a team that Saturday night spoiled so many Verlander pitches, just as it thoroughly spoiled a visiting team’s evening in Back Bay.